Back in 2003, you could barely move for mention of Freddy Adu. The wonderkid had signed his first professional contract at the age of 14, and was seemingly set to be a true star of the game.
At the time, if you had been asked to guess what Adu might be up to on his 33rd birthday, your answer might be fairly mundane.
He’d probably be enjoying a bit of downtime at the end of a successful season for whichever top side he had inevitably joined, while preparing for a World Cup with the United States. Certainly you wouldn’t have imagined he’d be closing in on seven years without a top-flight game in any country.
Some of Adu’s peers have enjoyed that kind of career. His first major international tournament – the Under-17 World Cup in 2003 – also featured the likes of David Silva, Joao Moutinho and Mikel John Obi, while he went to the FIFA World Youth Championships two years later and lined up against Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero, among others.
Fast forward to 2022, though, and he hasn’t enjoyed the career trajectories of those who burst onto the scene at the same time. Instead, he has played in a variety of different countries, as diverse as Finland, Brazil and Turkey, as well as spending time at various levels of the United States football pyramid.
Back in November 2003, Adu’s agreement with Major League Soccer was big enough news to be covered by the New York Times. That was a big deal at the time, with soccer in the United States by no means as popular as it is today, but his age and profile meant that still shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
“This is the biggest signing in the history of the league,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said, as reported by the American paper. “Freddy is one of the top young players in the world and his decision to play in his country and for his league will motivate other youngsters to look to MLS.”
Given his age, there might have been a temptation to ease Adu into the life of a professional footballer. However, he instead played regularly for his local team DC United before his 15th birthday, scoring his first goal as a pro in April 2004.
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Adu would remain part of the first team set-up in DC, and also earned his first senior United States call-up in early 2006 at the age of 16. He won his first cap in a team which also featured the likes of Landon Donovan and Josh Wolff – both of whom would represent Bruce Arena’s side at the World Cup later that year – but Adu himself wouldn’t end up travelling to Germany in the summer.
Still, 2006 did bring what felt like a big breakthrough in the form of a trial with Manchester United. He mostly trained with the under-23s, rather than Sir Alex Ferguson’s senior side, but did get the chance to rub shoulders with future Champions League winners including Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney.
“[Ferguson] would have been more than perfect for me,” Adu said in 2021. “Being a young player, you don’t see it that same way when you’re younger, you just see it as ‘I’m a good football player and I’m ready to play right now’, you’re not thinking about your development but the adults or coaches in the room, they are the ones that are very important.
“I had some coaches that were not into giving young players a chance. I did not go to stations where I could just develop and not have that ‘pressure’ of being ‘the next Pele’ and not have to contribute right away.”
As Adu himself has recognised, the wrong moves can really stunt a young player’s development. His misstep – at least in his own mind – came in 2008 when, after leaving DC United for Real Salt Lake and then Benfica, he opted to join Monaco on loan.
“The biggest mistake I made in my career was leaving Benfica on loan to Monaco,’ Adu toldThe Blue Wire Podcast in 2020, as reported by The Mail. “I say it from the heart. It was one of those decisions that, if I could take it again, I wouldn’t make it.
“I had three coaches in a year in Benfica. The club was in such a dysfunctional moment that I just wanted to get out of there and go the other way as soon as possible, but it turned out to be the worst decision.
“I joined the club at the same time as Di María. In the first year, I was better than him. I played better than him, but I decided to leave for Monaco on loan. And Di María stayed at Benfica. And guess what? He had the chance to play with a coach who later came and became a starter.”
The Monaco switch was one of four loan moves during Adu’s time at Benfica, and none were a roaring success. It was then that the American began what amounted to a world tour, with his only real respite coming in the form of a two-year stint back in MLS with Philadelphia Union.
That switch saw him reunited with Peter Nowak, his manager for the majority of his time in Washington, and the former Poland international gave Adu a semblance of stability. However, that too would end when Nowak made way for John Hackworth, and the youngster’s world tour resumed.
Moves to Brazil, Serbia and Finland followed, but none of them really clicked. Adu was still only 25 when he returned to the States once more, joining Tampa Bay Rowdies, but the fact that he was now playing outside MLS felt telling.
Tampa brought a reunion with former United States under-20 coach Thomas Rongen, though, and with it an opportunity to take stock. While Adu himself has spoken about the wisdom of certain decisions, Rongen himself – a man also known for his work with the American Samoa national team – had theories of his own.
“I don’t think he was prepared to sustain the rigorous demands of a pro club where it’s nasty, where players constantly compete for spots, and where, sadly, Americans are still seen as not a great soccer nation,” the Dutch-born manager told The Guardian in 2015. “You have to prove yourself every day – and physically it is very tough.
“Maybe in the places he went they knocked him down so far that they killed Freddy’s game. There has to be some understanding there, and the rest of the group has to understand that we’re going to have to work a little bit harder to cover Freddy’s deficiencies defensively, but, man, if we go forward, we’re fucking good. Because this kid can play.”
Still, while Adu was still only in his mid-20s, the career and the expectations had taken their toll. He failed to hold down a regular starting spot, even in the North American Soccer League.
He was soon supplanted in Florida by another man showered with praise as a youngster who was nearing the end of his career. However, as a talent from a more traditional footballing nation, former England international Joe Cole thrived where his predecessor was unable to.
Adu’s next move took him to Las Vegas, the site of what remains his most recent professional goal. He also set up the Las Vegas Lights’ first ever official goal, which doubled up as the first ever goal from any professional side based in the Nevada city.
Even then, though, there was a sense that his impact in the dressing room was as valuable as his on-field displays, which were good enough for minutes in the USL but perhaps not for the level some expected him to have reached in his late twenties.
“Being able to play with him, but not only that, off of the field having a friendship,” teammate Zak Drake told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “Having a little bit of his guidance because he, too, has traveled around the world and has all this knowledge.”
There was still time for another move, but the noises from Sweden – where Adu had a brief stint on the books of Osterlen – suggest his future may lie in coaching rather than playing. He agreed a one-year deal with the third-tier side, but left without playing a minute.
“We had an agreement with him that he would have the chance to show himself,” vice-chairman Filip Lindgren said, as reported by AS. “But from what we have seen, we have a hard time seeing that he will be able to compete. He has a lot of football in him, but the physical and the mental are missing,”
“He was clearly disappointed. He’s a really nice guy in every way, and I’m convinced he would have been a great football player. But he lacks the physicality required. We were actually a little surprised at how unprepared he was when he came here.”
A glance at Adu’s social media these days points to a man who hasn’t fallen out of love with football as a sport by any stretch. He’s still offering coaching sessions, and revelling in the success of the players he has taken under his wing.
It’s a role which perhaps distils what allowed him to develop such a high reputation to begin with, but also what prevented him from delivering on it. This was someone who thrived as a youngster, when it was possible to get away with a relative lack of physicality if you were technically good enough, but who suffered when it became clear there wasn’t as much margin for error in the professional game, both on and off the pitch.
For some, Freddy Adu’s career will serve as a cautionary tale – a too much, too young story. However, at 33 he still write a new chapter… albeit not on the pitch.